Writing Live Active Cultures, I've grown conversant with many Central Floridian life forms: theater life, theme park life, artistic life, geek life. But one kind of life I've never quite gotten is nightlife. Twenty years ago I dabbled in Orlando's legendary rave culture, but the closest I've come to being a habitual nightclubber was when I had a Pleasure Island annual pass (mostly for the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurers Club, RIP).
These days, my idea of ideal nightlife is more like last weekend's Otronicon After Dark, the adult-centric side of Orlando Science Center's 11th annual video game and simulation celebration. The popular three-day event is aimed at exciting youngsters about STEM careers, but on Friday and Saturday evenings OSC made an extra effort to appeal to an older demographic, with an over-21-only lounge sponsored by BART, live performances by chiptune musicians BFunk20XX and local Americana band Beemo, and a "mature gaming" competition (though the digital combat I witnessed seemed pretty immature).
In addition to examining 3-D printers and interactive demos from companies like EA Sports and Walt Disney Imagineering (who had an original Disneyland Tiki Room Barker Bird animatronic on display), I took the opportunity to enjoy the newly installed 2016 UCF STEAM Exhibition, titled When Art and Science Meet. Both UCF Fine Arts students and elementary-schoolers contributed to the gallery, which ranges from painted tiles inspired by cell cultures to photos documenting vegetable decomposition; I particularly liked Mauro Wieser's "breathing" sculpture, "Circadian Exhalation."
So while you're much more likely to find me in an arcade museum than an after-hours music hall, I made an exception when an invitation arrived to last Thursday's grand opening of Mango's Tropical Café on International Drive. I grew nervous upon reading the invite's request for "I-Drive Chic dress" (does that mean black Crocs and a tuxedo T-shirt?), but between the half-dressed bar staff and the dressed-to-the-nines crowd, I could have worn a dead lobster on my head and not been noticed.
After surviving a gauntlet of scantily clad chorus girls blocking the entrance and a proffered shot of undrinkable vodka (endorsed by Pitbull, and apparently distilled from his bodily fluids), I explored Mango's enormous multi-level interior, which betrays no evidence of its former incarnation as TGI Friday's Front Row. At first glance, you're overwhelmed by a riot of clashing textures and cacophonous colors, with different delirious design schemes around every corner. Look closer and you'll notice the exacting artistry imbuing every garish inch, from the massive inlaid tile mosaics across every bar to the monumental original paintings and folk art sculptures on the walls, oddly interspersed with suggestive photos of scantily clad partiers that give off an unfortunate strip-club vibe.
Later in the evening the floor show cranks up; you'll pay up to a $20 cover charge to watch it, or spend at least $60 on food and drinks if you want to sit while you do. The brassy band blows the roof off, beginning with their anthem, "Fall in Love at Mango's," and the dancing girls shimmy and strut down the curving staircases as well as any on the Vegas Strip. Latin production numbers that would have done Desi Ricardo proud alternate with a menagerie of specialty acts, like a hip-hop troupe that looks suspiciously like Jabbawockeez and a better-than-average Michael Jackson impersonator.
The commitment to going over the top also extends to the drink menu, which covers a half-dozen pages in small type. My house mojito was freshly muddled and not too sugary, but the "Te De Diablo" tasted like gasoline and Kool-Aid, with a similar kick. Food offerings are equally all over the place, covering Cuban, Caribbean, Italian and beyond; I ate four servings of the ceviche and would pay for more, but (aside from perfect plantains) the signature "Al Ajillo" platter should be shipped back to Havana.
I appreciate owners Josh and David Wallack's passion and commitment in bringing their South Beach institution to I-Drive; I especially admire David for acknowledging every contributing artist in his opening remarks. It was evident watching the ebullient county commissioners at the opening that the Wallacks have influential allies encouraging their ambitious projects, which include the Skyplex tower across the street. And Mango's Tropical Café has everything you could ever want in a see-and-be-seen night scene, save for a quiet spot to have a conversation. I'm just not quite sold that tourist families and conventioneers will be able to sustain an authentic South Beach environment long-term. But as we've already established, I ain't the target audience.